Humans are able to play with their food. All the different ways of serving potatoes have been written about in at least one book. The restaurant industry was born from our love of making food taste different.
My team's analysis of the oldest charred food remains ever found shows that jazzing up your dinner is a human habit.
Imagine people eating together. People tearing into raw ingredients or roasting meat over a fire are stereotypes. Our new study shows that both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens used plants with bitter and sharp flavours to make their diet.
For the first time, this degree of complexity has been documented for hunter-gatherers.
The earliest known plant food remains in south-west Asia were from a hunter-gatherer site in Jordan.
We looked at the diet of early hunter gatherers after examining food remains from two sites. There are pieces of prepared plant foods found in two caves. They look like carbonised crumbs or chunks under a low power microscope. We were able to see the details of plant cells.
Chefs from prehistoric times.
The carbonised food fragments were found in the cave. We found one fragment from a finely-ground food, which could be bread, batter or a type of porridge, along with pulse seed-rich, coarse-ground foods.
The Cave is associated with early modern humans around 40,000 years ago and Neanderthals around 70,000 years ago. Wild mustard and terebinth were mixed into food. The charred remains of the Neanderthals contained wild grass seeds. Grass seeds were found in the teeth of Neanderthals.
We found ground or pounded pulse seeds at both sites. The people who lived in these caves added the seeds to a mixture that was heated up with water.
Most of the wild pulse mixes were bitter. In modern cooking, the seeds are de-hulled and soaked to reduce their bitterness and toxins. Humans have been doing this for a long time. There were hints that these people wanted to retain a bit of the bitter flavour.
Previous studies had something to say.
The Aceramic period (the beginning of village life in the south-west Asia, 8500 BC) and later Neolithic sites in the region documented the presence of wild mustard, a seasoning well documented in the Aceramic period. Wild almonds, terebinth, and wild fruits can be found in plant remains from south-west Asia and Europe. They would have lent a special flavour to the meal if they were included. These plants were eaten all over the place. These dishes are believed to be the beginnings of human cooking.
Both Neanderthals and early modern humans had a variety of plants in their diet. The teeth of Neanderthals from Europe and south-west Asia have been found to have traces of food in them. Plants that were carbonised gathered pine nuts.
Early modern humans crushed and roasted wild grass seeds, which were found to have plant remnants from the European Palaeolithic period. There are Residues from an Upper Palaeolithic site in the Pontic steppe. Evidence from South Africa shows that humans used crushed wild grass seeds.
While both Neanderthals and early modern humans ate plants, this does not show up as consistently in the stable isotope evidence from skeletons as it would be if they ate meat. Neanderthal populations in Europe were thought to be top-level killers. A higher proportion of plants seems to have been a factor in the diet of Homo sapiens. We are certain that our evidence is the beginning of many finds from early hunter-gatherer sites in the area.
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